Category Archives: New Testament

My Little Ponies of the Apocalypse (revisited)

Famine Pony. War Pony. Pestilence Pony. And, most importantly, Death Pony. I’m teaching a class on Revelation 6 for my high school group on Sunday, which means I get to talk about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. So, I will almost certainly introduce the lesson with this fabulous little video. I’ve posted this before, but I thought it was worth reposting in honor of the upcoming lesson.

Make sure you catch Death Pony. That’s my favorite.

Forced Choices: the Gospels

Last week’s forced choice pit J. R. R. Tolkien against C. S. Lewis. And, although Tolkien led big at the beginning, Lewis slowly caught up, before pulling ahead for good late in the week. So, after one week, the tally stands at Lewis 55% and Tolkien 45%.

Since we’ve been talking about Matthew a lot this week, I thought it would be appropriate for today’s Forced Choice to focus on the Gospels. So, make your choice. Which Gospel do you like better? Feel free to make a comment explaining your choice, but you don’t have to.


What do you do with zombies in Matthew? A call for help

I can just imagine it. I’m hanging out at home, trying to relax, when someone knocks on my front door. Normally I would just sit quietly and hope they go away. But, for some reason, this time I actually get up.

Hello….Um….Zechariah?

Yup.

Aren’t you dead?

Yup. Now be quiet and pay attention. I have something important to tell you.

Okey dokey. Dead guy tells me to pay attention. I’m paying attention. Of course, I’m also reaching behind the door for my pitchfork, or whatever zombie killing devices they used in ye old Israel.

The tombs were also opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Mt. 27:52-53)

There’s been a lot of discussion about this passage in the last few days. And, I have to admit, that I’ve never been terribly comfortable with it. What exactly are we supposed to make of a bunch of dead people who suddenly walk out of their tombs and go sight-seeing in Jerusalem?

Some years back I got into a discussion about this passage with a friend. And, I argued at the time that I thought maybe this should be interpreted non-historically. I hadn’t really studied the passage, so it was just speculation, but I pressed on it a bit and tried to argue that Matthew was using this as a symbol of a deeper theological truth. Many friend kept pushing back, though, and after a while I realized that I was only doing that because this passage seemed too weird to be true. Zombie sightseers? Really? That’s just too weird.

But, here’s the problem. “Too weird to be true” just isn’t a very good argument.

Of course, the story raises some interesting questions. Why don’t the dead come out right away? Why do they wait until after the resurrection? What happens after they go into Jerusalem? Do they just hang out for a while, or do they turn to dust at midnight? And, why doesn’t anyone else talk about this stuff? Shouldn’t more people be commenting on such an amazing event? Why is it only in Matthew?

But, although those are interesting questions, none of them really say anything about whether this actually happened. They just re-emphasize how weird this story is. And, I believe lots of things that seem pretty weird to many people: the Trinity, the incarnation, and the resurrection being rather high on that list. Those are weird, but I still believe them. Why is this any different?

Too-weird-to-be-true isn’t going to cut it.

But, quite a few people think there are reasons for reading this text non-historically. And, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that their arguments go beyond my feeble too-weird-to-be-true “argument.” As we’ve seen over the last few days, Michael Licona holds this position, and both Mike Bird and John Byron have stated that they agree.

So, my question is: Why? Can anyone provide a good reason for reading Mt. 27:52-53 non-historically? I’m not even all that concerned with whether you agree with the argument, as long as it’s a good (or at least interesting) one. What are the best reasons for reading this passage as anything other than historical narrative? And, just to be clear, it has to be better than too-weird-to-be-true.

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When is an inerrancy debate not really about inerrancy?

Most of the time.

I hadn’t intended to write more about the Licona controversy and the inerrancy debate (here’s my first post), but I’ve gotten enough questions that I think I need to say a bit more. If you’d like to read more about the discussion, I’ve included some of the more important links at the bottom of this post.

The Basic Issues

  • Michael Licona understands the dead rising in Mt. 27:52-53 as a non-historical literary device rather than an actual historical event.
  • Many have argued that this is incompatible with inerrancy as defined by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) because it’s an example of “dehistoricizing” (see Article XVIII).
  • Licona claims that he believes in inerrancy and that his position on Mt. 27 is not incompatible with inerrancy. (I do not know whether Licona affirms inerrancy as defined by CSBI. But, for the sake of this post, I’ll assume that he does.)
  • Somebody is wrong.

According to CSBI, to affirm that the Bible is “inerrant” means you affirm that because God only speaks truth, and because the Bible is fully and wholly inspired by this truth-speaking God, the Bible speaks with “infallible divine authority” and is “without error or fault in all its teaching.” And, this infallible inerrancy extends to everything that it touches on, including “the events of world history.” So, for example, if the Bible makes a historical claim like “David was the king of Israel,” then it either must be the case that David was in fact an actual and historical king of Israel or inerrancy is false.

And CSBI is very clear in rejecting any attempt to “dehistoricize” scripture by turning historical events into non-historical events. In other words, you don’t get to dodge the Virgin Birth by turning it into a mere symbol of Christ’s unique significance. If the Bible presents it as an historical event, then it was one. You can reject the CSBI definition of inerrancy, but you can’t slip around it quite that easily.

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?

Like most things, it’s a bit more complicated in practice.

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The Real Crux of the Problem: Hermeneutics

All of this hinges on whether the Bible does in fact present some event as an actual historical event. Take, for instance, the six days of creation. Although many hold that Genesis 1 is historical and must be read that way, many other evangelicals disagree. Instead, they contend that Genesis 1 is doing something else (e.g. giving theological truths about the origin of the universe, offering a poetic account of creation, etc.). But, and this is key, when evangelicals read Genesis 1 in these ways, they are not rejecting inerrancy. They can still hold that Genesis 1 is infallible and inerrant in every way. They are simply arguing that the biblical authors never intended anyone to read Genesis 1 as describing literal, historical events. So, to read them that way is to misread the text.

In other words, it’s not that they think Genesis 1 tries to describe history and fails. They don’t think it is even trying to describe history, or it’s describing history with highly poetic language. It’s not wrong; it’s just doing something different. And, whatever it’s doing, it’s doing it inerrantly.

Now, is this an example of dehistoricizing a text? Are these people simply taking an obviously historical text and turning it into non-history so that they can avoid its clear implications? If so, then even though these people might still use the word “inerrancy,” it would not be the CSBI kind of inerrancy.

I don’t think so. I think we should reserve “dehistoricizing” for situations where a story that gives no indication of being anything other than historical is suddenly re-read as being non-historical. So, for example, to read the story of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 and conclude that this never really happened, and that the story actually refers to the spiritual gathering of believers in heaven, that would be an example of dehistoricizing. (I don’t know anyone who actually does that with this story.) There’s nothing in the text to suggest that this is anything other than an historical account of a real event (though described, of course, from a particular perspective). But, regardless of how you read Genesis 1, I think we should all recognize that there are reasonable arguments for reading it as something other than six literal days of creation. You can disagree with those arguments, of course. That’s where the fun is. But, let’s at least acknowledge that these people can point to many elements in Genesis 1 as indicating that this text was never intended to be read as literal history. So, they’re not simply dehistoricizing; they’re trying to read the text the way the authors intended.

In other words, this isn’t a debate about inerrancy. It’s about hermeneutics. What is the proper way to understand Genesis 1, and are there indications in Genesis 1 that it is anything other than straightforward history? What is the genre of Genesis 1, and how did the original authors intend for it to be read? These are all hermeneutical issues. And, they’re all worth discussing. But, none of them necessarily undermines inerrancy.

Now, CSBI does deal with issues of hermeneutics, but not very thoroughly. All it says is that Scripture is “to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis.” And this doesn’t really solve our problem. As CSBI recognizes, grammatical-historical exegesis takes into account things like genre and literary devices. So, a grammatical-historical method could still read Genesis 1 as poetry (or whatever) if there are indications that this is how the text should be read.

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Hermeneutics & the Licona Debate

What does any of this have to do with the Licona debate? Quite simply, this is not a debate about inerrancy either. Everyone involved in the discussion affirms inerrancy. And, I haven’t heard anyone say that they’re defining inerrancy in any way other than that affirmed by CSBI. So, let’s take them at their word and assume that they do in fact believe what they say they do.

As with Genesis 1, this is a debate about hermeneutics. Licona claims that Matthew intended for us to read 27:52-53 as an “apocalyptic” device that highlights the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. According to him, this was a common literary device in Greco-Roman culture and that Matthew would have expected his readers to know this and read the text accordingly. In other words, he’s not saying that Matthew claimed that people rose from the dead and that Matthew was in fact wrong about this. He’s saying that Matthew never intended us to think that people actually rose from their graves.

So, the question is not whether Licona rejects inerrancy, but whether he is correct in his interpretation of Mt. 27:52-53. Does he in fact have good evidence for maintaining that this is how Matthew and his readers would have understood this text? In other words, can he demonstrate that “rising from the grave” was a literary device and would have been understood as such in Matthew’s day? That’s a hermeneutical question.

Now, I’ll have to be honest here, I’m not convinced by Licona’s argument. Mt. 27:52-53 sure looks and feels like a seamless part of the historical narrative in which it’s contained. So, I’m having a hard time seeing the basis for saying that these verses are a non-historical literary device, while the surrounding verses are historical. But, I haven’t studied the text myself. So, maybe there’s more to the argument than I recognize.

The point is, this is a debate about hermeneutics. It is not a debate about inerrancy. It could end up having implications for inerrancy if the hermeneutical issues are resolved and it’s concluded that this was not an accepted literary device in Matthew’s day. To continue reading the text as poetic then would be to dehistoricize the text and reject inerrancy. But, that is not where we are in the discussion at this point.

So, let me say it again. This is not a debate about inerrancy. At least, it shouldn’t be. And, escalating it into a debate about inerrancy at this juncture is neither wise nor helpful. It distracts from the real issues and prevents people from taking an honest look at what may be a legitimate interpretive possibility.

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For More Information:

I’m sure there are many others, but this should be more than enough.

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Racial reconciliation and the Gospel

One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation by Jarvis J. Williams (B&H, 2010).

 

Evangelicals have worked hard over the last several decades to pursue a theological understanding of the human person, dealing with issues like fee will, gender, and mind/body, among others. But, on issues of race and ethnicity, we’ve been relatively quiet. I’m sure that’s partly because evangelicalism has a spotty track record on racial issues in general, making this a challenging topic for us to address. But, I think it may also stem from the fact that most of the books offering a theological perspective on race/ethnicity tend to be highly technical (i.e. nearly unintelligible to the uninitiated) and often do not spend much time on biblical/exegetical issues, which tend to be the primary interest of evangelical thinkers.

With One New Man, Jarvis Williams takes an important step forward in evangelical thinking about race/ethnicity. He offers a short, accessible work that deals extensively with the relevant biblical material. Its core argument is that humanity’s fall into sin involves both horizontal (God) and vertical (human) alienation, and, correspondingly, the Gospel promises both horizontal and vertical reconciliation. So, to understand racial reconciliation, we really need to understand the Gospel.

SUMMARY

With this emphasis on the Gospel as it relates to racial reconciliation, it should come as no surprise that the structure of the book follows the story of redemption. After a quick introduction, Williams explains that the reason for racial reconciliation lies in the tragedy of the Fall and its impact on humanity (chapter 2). So, the only possible solution to the problem lies in the reconciliation offered to all people through the atonement (chapter 3). This doesn’t just reconcile us to God, but creates the possibility, even the necessity, of racial reconciliation as we all become “one new man” in Christ (chapter 4). Finally, Williams offers a short chapter on the practical application of these insights in churches today (chapter 5).

STRENGTHS

The most obvious strength of the book lies in its commitment to exegesis. Almost unique among books dealing with race, Williams spends the bulk of his time doing biblical theology and exegesis. That’s a refreshing change of pace for the genre.

But, Williams’ most valuable contribution is in his clear connection between racial discord, racial reconciliation, and the Gospel. For Williams, racial reconciliation is not an optional feature of the Christian life that we can get around to whenever we have some time between evangelistic events and discipleship classes. Racial reconciliation is fundamental to the “good news” that God made available in Jesus Christ and something that all Christians should be working toward.

Another key contribution is the distinction between “racial diversity” and “racial reconciliation.” “Diversity” is the mere presence different races in a single group. “Reconciliation” involves healing the wounds of sin and alienation so that the various groups come together in the true unity made possible through the atonement. And, Williams argues throughout that mere diversity is inadequate given the grand scope of the Gospel.

Finally, Williams offers some very helpful comments at the end of the book for how this can (and should) play out with respect to specific ministry realities. Unsurprisingly, he criticizes efforts that focus on mere diversity (e.g. occasional “joint” worship services or just striving for “multiethnic” churches). And, although he doesn’t mention it by name, he has no use for the “homogenous unit principle” – i.e. the idea that churches are most effective when they target a single demographic. Even at its best, he sees this as yet another reflection of racial discord that belies the life-transforming power of the Gospel.

WEAKNESSES

Given the strengths of the book, I’d like to give it an unqualified endorsements. But, I can’t. Despite these strengths, the book does have some important drawbacks.

First, and most frustratingly, the book’s emphasis on the Gospel leads to a serious imbalance in the material. The two longest chapters of the book deal with sin and the atonement respectively. And, in those chapters, relatively little is said about race in particular. These chapters are just setting the stage by discussing the problem and the solution. But, that means Williams devotes over two-thirds of the book to setting up the discussion. By the time he finally reaches the material specific to racial reconciliation, the book is almost done. As important as I think the Gospel is in this discussion, I would have liked to see Williams spend less time on sin/atonement, work that has been done many times by others, so that he could devote more attention to making the connection with racial issues.

Second, the imbalance contributed to some important oversights. More interaction with other authors writing on race and theology would have alerted the reader to some of the complexities involved in the discussion. At the very least, it would have been good to see definitions of such key terms as “race,” “ethnicity,” and “racism.” Williams seems to view these as terms with relatively self-evident definitions. But that is far from the case, as a quick summary of the relevant literature would demonstrate. And, lacking clear definitions, it becomes difficult to assess Williams’ argument in places – especially in the final chapter where he writes on the practical application of his ideas. (For example, what exactly is a “racist” church? Is mere racial homogeneity sufficient to establish that a church is “racist”?)

Finally, a real problem arises when Williams tries to move from Pauline theology to racial reconciliation today. His discussion of “race” in the NT is really a discussion of Jew/Gentile relations. And, that makes sense given that Paul focuses primarily on these categories. But, he recognizes that “Jew” and “Gentile” in the NT are primarily religious rather than racial/ethnic terms: “The greatest difference was that the Jews’ and Gentiles’ hatred toward one another was not based on skin color, but on religion” (p. 122). But, if Jew/Gentile is fundamentally a religious rather than a racial distinction, how does one connect Paul’s theology of Jew/Gentile reconciliation to the problem of racial reconciliation today, which is a significantly different problem. I’m sure it’s possible to make important connections between the two, but unfortunately, Williams either doesn’t see the difficulty, or simply chooses not to engage it.

CONCLUSION

One New Man is a great book for seeing that racial reconciliation is a part of the Gospel story. It is neither optional nor secondary. Used in that sense, One New Man will be a helpful resources, particularly for those looking for more of an introductory survey of the relevant biblical material.

[Many thanks to Broadman & Holman for sending me a review copy of One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation.]

Women in the Roman World

It always makes me nervous to post videos I haven’t had a chance to watch yet, but when they look like interesting resources, I’m willing to take the chance. And, these certainly fit that bill. Thanks to Brian LePort for pointing out these videos of Linda Cohick, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, discussing women in the ancient Roman world. Her book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians has gotten some really good reviews. So, I can only assume that the videos will be interesting as well.

Here’s the first one. You can view the other two at the Center for Public Christianity.

The “Messianic Secret”: Early Fabrication or Historical Reality?

“Don’t tell anyone who I am.”

If this is something that Spiderman says to Mary Jane after she discovers his secret identity, it makes perfect sense. He has to keep his secret to protect his loved ones, and he probably doesn’t want his friends knowing that he spends his evenings prancing around the city in colored spandex. Or, if an undercover cop whispers this to his informant as they slip into the underground hideout of some notorious gang of thugs, everyone understands that he has pretty good reasons for want to hide his true identity.

But Jesus? He’s the Messiah, the one who’s supposed to come and lead God’s people into all the blessings of the kingdom. That’s the best news around. Why would he want to keep that a secret?

He wouldn’t.

At least, that’s what Wilhelm Wrede argued in his The Messianic Secret. According to Wrede, the early church didn’t come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah until after the resurrection. But, once they’d come to believe, the early Christian community needed some explanation for why Jesus wouldn’t have given any overt indication of this  before his crucifixion. So, Wrede argued, the Gospel writers, particularly Mark, invented the “messianic secret” as a way of explaining this inexplicable silence.

But, is that an adequate explanation? Not according to Jesse Richards in the paper that he presented at the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society: “Mark’s Nuance of Wrede’s Messianic Secret: ‘The Messianic Paradox’.” Richards argues that although Wrede’s argument is interesting and provocative, it ultimately fails to convince. Instead, he contends that these sayings manifest the “messianic paradox” of a suffering messiah, not an after-the-fact theological reconstruction fabricated by early Christian leaders.

Here’s the outline of the paper that he provides in his introduction:

First, a brief overview of Wrede’s place in historical Jesus studies, and thesis, will be provided to frame the discussion; second, a critique of Wrede’s thesis will be offered; third, A proposal of how the secrecy theme is historical and stems from the life of Jesus. Fourth the significance of Jesus crucifixion as King of the Jews; finally, literary criticism which has been used to evaluate Mark’s narrative strategy will be shown to support the Messianic paradox, and thus argue against the idea that Mark was concocting a
messianic secret.

After a lengthy summary and critique of three main lines of evidence offered by Wrede in support of his hypothesis (the distinct nature of the messianic motif, the unhistorical nature of exorcisms, and the post-Easter belief in Jesus as Messiah), Richards moves into his argument that a more plausible account of these messianic sayings can be found in the messianic paradox:

From a narrative analysis of Mark it becomes clear that Mark was seeking to emphasize Jesus as the suffering messiah. This is truly the messianic paradox—that Messiah would suffer. Mark uses pacing of his narrative to focus in on the week of Jesus’ death. His use of irony allows the themes of secrecy and messiahship to exist together, without one having to negate the other. Additionally, his irony lets the reader in on the truth of Jesus as Messiah. Mark also highlight’s Jesus’ messiahship through the climax of his narrative—the confession of Peter, and then uses triads to show that Jesus is anointed to be Isaiah’s servant of the Lord who will give his life as a ransom. The gospel is also full of intercalation, which helps to highlight this theme as well. Mark’s plot, including Jesus indictment of the temple cult, the leader’s rejection, and the disciples misunderstanding are intentionally contrasted with the God of Israel, tearing open heaven to declare Jesus his Son at baptism, and tearing the curtain open to declare Jesus his anointed Isaianic servant at death.

So, Richards argues from a variety of angles that the messianic “secret” was not a post-Easter fabrication, but was actually an historical aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry, consistent with the paradoxical reality of the suffering and crucified Messiah.

(This is last part of a series highlighting papers presented by faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)

Marcus Borg – from a Charismatic Cuban Perspective

[This is a guest post by Jesse Richards, an MA graduate from Western Seminary, reposted from his blog Without Void.]

Marcus Borg….I actually think I cursed Him and asked God to strike down satan’s work when I first heard him interviewed with Dominic Crossan on NBC in 2006. They were talking about Jesus final week and Dom Crossan said Jesus’ body was probably thrown in a shallow grave and eaten by dogs…implication— the resurrection did not happen. You could see why as a young (22 years) hot-blooded cuban charismatic I called down imprecations.

What I did for the next 5 years was I naively lumped, Borg, Crossan, and all the other Jesus Seminar fellows into the demonic category, and relegated them to the dustbin when it came to my own thinking on Jesus. My simple thought was “These demonized guys had nothing to offer us in the church.”

It was my time at Western Seminary, combined with being on the mission of Jesus to high school students in Portland (who embrace conspiracy theories), that made me realize the importance of historical Jesus studies, and even most of the work that Borg and Crossan had done in their research and writing.

As I would simply share the message of Jesus with students, and other co-workers, I started realizing that most people on the ground in Portland are more skeptical about the Jesus tradition than Borg and Crossan. This was rather alarming! Yes, as I sought to engage people with this man from Nazareth, the conversation could quickly tailspin into religious pluralism, the Da Vinci Code, ethical hot button issues, politics, mayan prophecies, or aliens! At least Borg and Crossan could say things like, ‘Jesus was a man of the Spirit who opposed the corrupt temple establishment’ (Borg) or ‘It is bedrock that Jesus was crucified King of the Jews’ (Crossan). I found that common people, even the college educated, even public school history teachers, did not have much of anything to say when it came to Jesus of Nazareth. Why was this? How had the most towering figure in civilization been forgotten by the people of Portland?

As these frustrations ruminated in my mind I was working through a reading list on historical Jesus studies. One book I was reading edited by Dunn and Mcknight contained an article by Borg on Jesus and the Spirit. After reading the article I decided to digress from my reading list to dig a bit more on Borg. I picked up Borg’s doctoral dissertation from Oxford ‘Conflict, Politics, and Holiness in the teachings of Jesus’. After reading the work I was impressed by the rigorous social, political, and historical effort Borg had put into his reconstruction of Jesus’ life. I actually found myself saying at several points, “This is very helpful”. I then read Jesus; A new Vision and Jesus; two visions which I thought were both very helpful at many points.

From my reading, a basic outline of Borg’s thought on Jesus is:

  • Jesus was a man of the Spirit (like Honi or Hanina Ben Dosa).
  • Jesus vision at His baptism was a powerful experience.
  • Jesus was a very successful exorcist.
  • Jesus taught using parables and aphorisms.
  • Jesus broke all the purity regulations disrupting the boundaries set up by the aristocracy.
  • Jesus ministry was a petition against the temple elite, the power brokers.
  • Jesus was crucified for His perceived revolutionary activity.
  • Jesus tomb was probably not empty, but the community proclaimed him raised.

It is this basic historical sketch, that I find many people on the streets of Portland are not aware of. Evangelicals would nuance some of this basic outline, and disagree with some of the points, especially the empty tomb. By and large however, I came to discover that there is an agreed upon consensus even among ‘mainstream’ liberal, and conservative scholars on the outline of Jesus’ life.

After all this reading, I made an appointment to sit down for coffee with Marcus in the pearl (a trendy part of downtown Portland where Marcus lives). My conversation with him was chill. I simply asked questions to figure out what this man thought of Jesus. He had much evangelical bashing to do (and I almost wonder if he did this to test how I would react….pretty offensive stuff), but as we kept on the topic of Jesus life, and ministry, I found myself learning from most of what He said. Marcus and I have maintained email contact, and I enjoyed sitting with Him at ETS NW, as he scratched out his notes for how to respond to Craig Blomberg, I enjoyed getting a glimpse of how this man thought.

Since I have listened to Marcus first hand I now know the points at which we have similarities and differences.

Strong points of Disagreement:

1. Empty Tomb

2. His definition of religion as “a linguistic cultural phenomenon”

Strong points of agreement:

1. Jesus was a successful exorcist

2. Jesus broke all the purity regulations disrupting the boundaries set up by the aristocracy

3. Jesus ministry was a petition against the temple elite, the power brokers.

4. Jesus was crucified for His perceived revolutionary activities

Take aways:

Be sure to read first hand accounts of people you disagree with when you can make the time. You will learn!! Obviously no one has time to read stuff from everyone they disagree with on every issue (too many people, and too many issues).

Liberal Historical Jesus Scholarship can help us steer popular ‘conspiracy theorists’ back towards a more chastened historical approach to Jesus. An approach that agrees with much of the biblical portrait, even if it disregards inerrancy and inspiration. In this sense, liberal historical Jesus scholarship can aid in evangelism to a bewildered generation of people who can remember Dan Brown and Zeitgeist, but not Jesus of Nazareth.

When words mean more than they seem, or not

I like those optical illusions that are really two pictures in one. Some people see a saxophone player, others a woman’s face. But, the truth is that the picture contains both. It has semantic “depth,” containing multiple legitimate meanings at the same time.

Words function much the same way. Rarely does any particular term support only a single meaning. Instead, words are “polyvalent,” rich with multiple possible meanings, simply waiting for an author to select one of those many meanings in any particular act of communication.

But, that depth of meaning also contributes to significant ambiguity if it’s unclear which of these several meanings the author intends. And, at times, the difficulty of choosing between multiple possible meanings leaves the reader wondering if the author may actually be playing with more than one meaning at once. Is it possible, that rather than choosing between A, B, and C, I’m supposed to see all three in the same text? If so, how would I know?

These are the questions that James DeYoung addressed in the paper that he presented at the NW meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, “Origen’s “Beautiful Captive Woman,” Polyvalence, and the Meaning of the “Righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17“. (Dr. DeYoung is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary.)

The specific focus of the paper is the paper that Frank Thielman presented at last year’s national ETS conference. Thus, DeYoung begins his paper by summarizing Thielman’s two key arguments and the main lines of evidence used to support them. First, Thielman contended that “righteousness of God” in Romans is polyvalent, including at least three basic ideas: (1) the saving activity of God, (2) the gift of acquittal, and (3) an attribute of God. All three of these are in play throughout Romans, so we shouldn’t try to limit Paul’s meaning to any one of them. Second, Thielman argued that analysis of both biblical and extrabiblical information suggests that the specific attribute in view is God’s fairness and equity in how he distributes salvation.

What follows this summary is really a series of thoughts sparked by this way of understanding Paul. DeYoung is particularly concerned about the implications of finding such polyvalence in the text. Although he affirms that texts may have a surprising depth of meaning, and he’s cautious about identifying the meaning of the text directly with any particular interpretation of that meaning, he rejects the idea that an author (in normal discourse) intends more than one meaning at the same time. And, he suggests that such moves toward polyvalence are implicitly attempts to move away from authorial intent as a guiding hermeneutical objective.

DeYoung is also troubled by the emphasis that Thielman places on extrabiblical literature in the discussion. Although DeYoung recognizes the importance of such secondary literature, he thinks that the biblical context, particularly the OT background and worldview, of NT terms/phrases should have preeminence.

So when does the interpreter appeal to secular usage to interpret a biblical text? It should be done to confirm a biblical definition, or to explain a term that is a hapax legomenon (occurring only once in the literature), or when it adds meaning that the Bible would also support.

Several of DeYoung’s arguments relate to the fact that he remains ultimately unconvinced by Thielman’s argument for “equity” as the attribute under consideration. DeYoung thinks that Thielman mishandles some of the evidence and overemphasizes others.

So, to conclude, DeYoung offers his own understand of the phrase in question.

So what is the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17? It seems best to define it as follows. In the gospel, proclaiming the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, God is revealing his nature as upright. He is upright or just because the gospel is God’s power to save everyone (v. 16) who believes it. Or, because the gospel (proclaiming the atoning, substitutionary death of Christ and his resurrection) is God’s power to save everyone (v. 16) who believes (v. 17b), God reveals that he himself is just or upright regarding the need to punish sin by what he has done right in the work of Christ at the cross and in the resurrection. He vindicates himself as just by  what he did at the cross and by how he can accept the guilty.

(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)

The Eschatological Voice of Romans 8:1-25

What is the future of this present earth? Will it be burned up and destroyed, or will it be renewed and redeemed? How does all of this fit into God’s overall plan for salvation?

These are some of the questions that Brian LePort wrestled with in a paper that he presented last month at the NW meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, “The Eschatological Voice of Romans 8:1-25.

Here’s how he sets up the discussion:

When the canonical choir sings eschatological songs we often give much attention to the passages with a higher pitch. Many books have been written on the otherworldly images of the Apocalypse. The cataclysmic vision of 2 Peter 3.10-13 results in “ooohs” and “ahhhs” as we hear of the earth being purged by flames. And what can we say when Jesus himself tells us “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Mt. 24.35; Mk. 13.31; Lk. 21.33). There doesn’t seem to be much hope for this creation. It would appear that her end is devastation.

Yet in the Book of Genesis we are told that God thought his creation to be “good” (1.4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25) and when he added humans it became “very good” (1.31). This should cause us to pause. In spite all the passages that seem to indicate that creation is expendable we must ask if there are any passages that harmonize more directly with the creation account.

Before we claim to have heard the whole song we must give heed to the tenor of Pauline eschatology. Whereas the aforementioned passages, and others like them, seem to indicate a discontinuation between this world and the one to come, the contribution of the Apostle Paul is that he emphasizes some sort of continuation. In this paper it is my desire to draw attention specifically to the voice of Rom. 8.1-25 as we formulate a Christian eschatology. I will be asking for those who are in attendance to give a hearing to this passage because I believe that it contributes balance to the canonical witness regarding the future of this current created order. It is here in these verses that we will see an analogy between the transition which will occur during our resurrection and the “rebirthing” of all creation.

He goes on from there to argue that to understand Romans, you have to hear the “echoes” of Genesis that reverberate throughout the book. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to read Romans 8 in that context as the crescendo and climax of God’s plans for creation, which he began way back in Genesis 1.

So, he concludes.

In Rom. 8.1-25 we find that the relationship between God, humanity, and the created order will be made right in the age to come. Humans will reign and rule with the risen Lord Jesus Christ over the renovated earth being and doing for creation what Adam and Eve (and every generation since) has failed to be and do. Humans will point creation toward her Creator rather than worshiping the creation.This will be when the adopted children of God are resurrected with new bodies, overcoming death, setting creation free from the curse that came because of Adam and Eve in Eden. Creation will be set free from her suffering.

In LePort’s argument, then, Paul presents the future of this creation as one of redemption and restoration. Although there are elements of discontinuity between what we see now and the new creation to come, he sees important elements of continuity as well – continuity grounded in God’s creative purposes begun in Genesis and echoed throughout Romans.

(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)